New Leaf Mills – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells would, we imagine, be the last person in the world to suppose that, in “New Leaf Mills,” he had produced a work in any way comparable with his own masterpieces. But, slight as the new story is, it has all the charm of his inimitable style, and exhales all the sweetness of the personality which has made him the most beloved of our men of letters. He has simply gone back to the time of his Ohio boyhood sixty years ago, and fished out of his recollections the materials for a picture of the way in which simple people then lived on what was then the western fringe of our civilization. He tells the story of Owen Powell and his family, who finds it hard to make a living in town, buys an old mill in the country, with the aim of establishing a cooperative community of the type which then hovered before men’s minds as likely to furnish the solution of the social problem. He wishes to turn over a new leaf, and this suggests a name for the enterprise. The plan is given up in the end, and not very much happens in between-there is a house-raising, and a surly miller who resents the intrusion of the new owner, and a hired girl who mysteriously disappears, and that is about all, except a great deal of talk, tinctured with Swedenborgianism, which is Owen Powell’s spiritual stay in all his reverses. It is a book which helps us to understand our forbears of a generation or two ago, and is an undeniably veracious transcript of their life.
New Leaf Mills.
Excerpt from the text:
The opinions of Owen Powell marked a sharp difference between him and most of his fellow-townsmen in the town of the Middle West, where he lived sixty years ago. A man who condemned the recent war upon Mexico as a wicked crusade for the extension of slavery, and denounced the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Law as infernal, would have done well to have a confession of spiritual faith like that of his neighbors; but here Owen Powell was still more widely at variance with them. He rejected the notion of a personal devil, and many others did that ; but his hell was wholly at odds with the hell popularly accepted ; it was not a place of torment where the lost sinner was sent, but a state which the transgressor himself chose and where he abode everlastingly bereft of the sense of better things. Even so poor a hell saved Powell from the reproach of Universalism ; but in a person so one-ideaed, as people then said, through his abhorrence of slavery, it was not enough. He was valued, but he was valued in spite of his opinions; they were distinctly a fact to his disadvantage in that day and place.
His younger brother Felix, after the wont of prosperous merchants, kept out of politics, and he carried his prayer-book every Sunday to the Episcopal service.
But he quietly voted with Owen, and those who Counted on a want of sympathy between the brothers were apt to meet with a prompt rebuff from Felix. He once stopped his subscription and took away his advertising from the Whig editor who spoke of a certain political expression of Owen’s (it was in a letter to the editor’s paper) as having the unimportance of small potatoes, and he extorted a printed retractation of the insult before he renewed his patronage. He felt, more than any of his words or acts evinced, the beauty of the large benevolent intention which was the basis of Owen’s character, and he was charmed, if he was not convinced, by his inextinguishable faith in mankind as a race merely needing good treatment to become everything that its friends could wish; by his simple courage, so entire that he never believed in danger; and by his sweet serenity of temperament. Felix was in delicate health, and he was given to some vague superstitions. He had lost several children, and he believed that he had in every case had some preternatural warning of their death ; his young wife, who was less openly an invalid, shared his beliefs, as well as his half-melancholy fondness for his brother. She liked to have Owen Powell’s children in her childless house; and she had some pretty affectations of manner and accent which took them with the sense of elegance in a world beyond them.
They came to her with their mother every Sunday night, and heard their father and uncle talk of their boyhood in the backwoods ; of their life in a log cabin, and of the privations they had gladly suffered there. The passing years had endeared these hardships to the brothers, but their wives resented the early poverty which they held precious ; and they hated the memory of that farm where the brothers had lived in a log-cabin, and had run wild, as it appeared from the fond exaggeration of their reminiscences, in bare feet, tattered trousers, and hickory shirts. Sometimes the brothers reasoned of the questions of theology upon which the mind of the elder habitually dwelt; but Felix disliked argument, and Owen affectionately forbore to assail him as a representative of the Old Church. After the pioneer stories, the children fell asleep on the sofa and the carpet, and did not wake till they heard the piano, where their young aunt used to sing and their uncle accompany her with his flute; he remained associated in their memories with the pensive trebles of his instrument and the cadences of her gentle voice.
There came a lime when the summer days were clouded in their home by an increasing care, which they felt at second hand from their father and mother ; then there came a Sunday night when there were no rosy visions of the past ; and, by the matter-of-fact light of the Monday following, Felix saw that the affairs of his brother were hopeless. Owen’s book and drug store had never been a flourishing business, and now it had gone from bad to worse beyond retrieval. On the afternoon of the morning when the store was not opened, he walked with his boys a long way into the country. It was very sultry, and he repeated a description of summer from Thompson’s Seasons. As they returned along the river-shore he pointed out the lovely iridescence of the mussel-shells which he picked up, and geologized in passing on the stratification of the rocks in the bank.
An interval of suspense followed this stressful time, which their young memories took little note of. On the Sunday evenings at their uncle’s the talk seemed to the children to be all of a plan for going to live in the country. Apparently, there was to be a property which the brothers were to hold in common, and it was to be bought as soon as the younger could get his business into shape. Two brothers in other towns were to be invited to close up their affairs and join in the enterprise. Then, with something of the unsurprising inconsequence of dreams, the notion of a farm had changed in the children’s apprehension to the notion of a mill, and more dimly a settlement of communal proportions about it. They heard their elders discussing the project one night when they woke from their nap, and crowded about their mother’s chair for warmth, with the fire now burning low upon the hearth.
” The best plan,” their uncle said, ” will be to find a mill privilege with the buildings already on it. We could take out the burrs,” which the boys understood later were millstones, ” and put in paper machinery. When we were once settled there, we could ask people that we found adapted to join us, but at first it would have to be a purely family concern.”
” Yes,” their father said. ” One condition of our being able to do any good from the start would be our unquestionable hold of the management. That would be the only orderly method. I would give all hands a share in the profits, so as to interest and attach them, but till they were educated up to our ideas they oughtn’t to be allowed any control.”
Felix cleared his throat by a husky effort habitual with him before speaking again. ” We could indirectly benefit them from the beginning enough to satisfy any reasonable expectation.”
After that it might have been weeks before the enterprise took clearer shape. From time to time the children forgot it; they played through the long summer vacation; but when the first keen mornings of the autumn came, and the neighbors’ children went by with their books, they did not return to school. The privilege, with a gristmill and sawmill on it, had been found and bought, they did not know where, any more than how, but it was ten or twelve miles from the town in another county. Their father and mother had driven out with their aunt and uncle to look at it; their uncle had taken his gun, and he brought back some squirrels in the bottom of his carriage; he said that he had almost got a shot at a wild turkey. With such facts before them Owen’s boys could not understand why their mother should be low-spirited about going to live at the mills. They heard their father talking with her after they went to bed, and she said : ” But all that wildness makes my heart sink. I had enough of that when I was a girl, Owen. You know I never liked the country to live in.”
” I know, I know. But we shall soon Have quite a village about us. At any rate, we shall have a chance to begin life again.”
” Oh yes. But it’s beginning so far back.”
In the morning she was cheerfuller, and their father told the children that they were to move out to the mills at once, and that he was to have charge of the property till the paper machinery could be put into the gristmill. At the sawmill he was to get out the stuff for a new house that was to be built; but their hearts leaped when he told them that they were to live that winter in a log cabin.
It was Sunday, and the night was the last they spent at their uncle’s in the old way. It was not quite the old way, though. The piano was not opened, and the flute lay shut in its case. The brothers went over their plans, and they spoke of whom they might invite to join them after their success became apparent. It seemed that they meant to be careful, and ask only those who could take up the enterprise in an enlightened spirit. Owen Powell believed that a responsive feeling would be awakened in the neighbors when they saw that the new-comers did not wish merely to make money for themselves, but to benefit all by improvements that» would increase the price of their land and give employment to their children.
Felix listened with his melancholy smile, absently rolling his cigar between his thumb and finger. ” What shall we call the place ?” he asked.
” I don’t know,” Owen said. ” Something that would imply our purpose of turning over quite a new leaf.”
They talked further of the details of their undertaking, and the children went on with their play. They were dramatizing their arrival at the mills, and one of them was shouting to a supposed inhabitant, ” Is this place New Leaf Mills ?”
” Hey ? Hey ?” their uncle called to them. ” What’s that?”
” We’re just playing,” they explained.
” New Leaf — New Leaf Mills,” he repeated, musingly. ” That wouldn’t be bad. What made you think of that name ?” He bent a sidelong glance on the conscious group.
The eldest of the boys ventured, ” Why, father said you would turn over a new leaf at the mills, and we just called them that.”
“Yes, yes! Very good,” he said. “Do you hear that, Owen? We’ve got a name for our place. We can stencil it on our flour-barrels now, and when we get in our paper machinery, we can make it our watermark.”